A Boy, A Girl, A Friendly Ghost: Why I Haven't Gotten A Real Job

The following is a submission for the Self-Involvement Blog-A-Thon, through the highly recommended Culture Snob, which I am late in getting in on the game on due to work related responsibilities and exhaustion. Still, when I signed up for this a few months back, I did so with the intent of telling this story.

I’m going to be telling this story forever.

I don’t own the first movie that changed the course of my life. It’s not one that I consider my favorite, or even a guilty pleasure. The last time I saw it was in late 2003, when I wrote a paper on it for a course on children’s films.

I was not kind to Casper, Brad Silberling’s 1995 adaptation of the Harvey Comics character, although I’d made my peace with the movie’s importance in my filmgoing life. But it was that movie — and its then-teen star — that started me down the road towards others, towards a quote-unquote career in film.

In 1994, my family moved from New York to Ohio. I did not handle the move well, enjoyed the pack mentality of early adolescence a little too much, and by the end of the school year, found myself in danger of being left back. That didn’t happen, though, and a few weeks before school ended, my dad, younger brother, and I went to see Casper. My father’s a tv critic and historian, and he wanted to see it because of the television connection. My dad loves connections.

I remember liking Casper at the time I saw it, thinking it was funny and that between this movie and Independence Day, Bill Pullman had to be the coolest guy in the world. I didn’t much like the ending, when Amy Brenneman, as the dead mom, comes back, because my own mom had died in 1989, when I was five, and that kind of subject matter was still touchy for me. (See also: Home Alone and A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, the two times I’ve sobbed in a theater. Casper, I cried after.)

Okay, okay — “liking Casper” is an understatement. I flipped for the fucking thing. More specifically, I flipped for Christina Ricci in it. I suppose every person who goes to the movies on a regular basis has a memory of their first big crush on an actor. Ricci was mine, and in the summer of 1995, I read everything I could about her career, collected magazines — from People to Bop to Vanity Fair — with articles about her. I collected these articles and kept them in a manilla folder, marked with, yes, hearts. The folder became quite the source of teasing in my family — I can still hear my dad’s exasperated voice when describing the extent of my affection: “He has a file.” (Another great moment from my dad as when he described Ricci’s appearance on a talk show as “slovenly.”)

Sixth grade started, Casper came out on tape, and I watched it four times the weekend after I bought it with my own money. Somewhere in that weekend I decided I wanted — no, had — to meet Christina Ricci. A normal kid would think about this, and realize that if Ricci was an actor, perhaps the best thing to do would be to become an actor in hopes of one day working alongside her.

In case you haven’t figured out, I was not a normal kid, so I decided that the best way to meet Ricci was to write a screenplay for her to star in and send it to Steven Spielberg to direct. I promptly began work on Power Play, which eventually took up two notebooks, one blue and the other red, a cast page detailing Ricci’s costars.

What was Power Play about? It was, in my mind, the Ocean’s Eleven of the teen idols set from the years between Beverly Hills 90210 and Dawson’s Creek. If I remember correctly, Ricci, Jonathan “JTT” Taylor Thomas, Brad Renfro, Devon Sawa, Anna Chlumsky, and Gabby Hoffman are teenage runaways who uncover a drug scheme led by Kevin Bacon and his assistant Andrew Keegan. They decide to stop him, only to provoke the ire of Bacon’s hitmen, played by John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson as their Pulp Fiction characters, if they were written by a sixth grader who hasn’t seen Pulp Fiction and only knows the following things: a. they like McDonald’s, b. they say “let’s get medieval” a lot, and c. they are hitmen. Somehow, cops Chris Farley and Morgan Freeman figure out what the kids are up to and try to help them.

In the course of the script, Devon Sawa dies, Thomas runs through a window a la Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Ricci and JTT quote Fair Game, and musical references to both the Animals and Tommy James & The Shondells are made. It ends with a formal dance at a roller rink interrupted by Keegan kidnapping Ricci, Brad Renfro being revealed as a traitor, Ricci on her way to the hospital, JTT chasing Renfro through the woods, and both of them going over a waterfall. There are lots of explosions, shootouts, and the kind of excessive property damage and wanton violence that twelve year olds think are cool.

(I, also, think of Power Play when I wonder why I can’t completely hate movies like Domino or Smokin’ Aces. Because they’re ludicrous movies filled with explosions, shootouts, and excessive property damage — and they are exactly the kind of movie I would have written at twelve.)

I think the whole thing took me about four months to write, from October to December/January. I did not send it to Spielberg, because by the time I finished, I realized it wasn’t that good. But I had finished it, something I’d never been able to do before, despite having written stories and would-be novels since I was five. The experience of writing Power Play, of finishing it, made me realize the movies I’d watched since my mom died, from Star Wars to The Searchers to Jurassic Park to The Rocketeer, had taught me how to tell stories in this format. That this was something that I had a talent for — that if I wasn’t good at now, I could get good at.

The question was then, “how do I get good at this?” So Casper led to Power Play, and Power Play led to the many screenwriting books that strangled me with their emphasis on form when all I wanted to do was just tell stories. Those books, and their emphasis on education, led me to go to a Jesuit high school, because there was no way I was going to get into a good film school unless I went to a good high school. And by this point, Ricci had outgrown teen fare like Gold Diggers: The Secret of Bear Mountain and Now and Then, moving into R-rated flicks like The Ice Storm and The Opposite of Sex, neither of which I was allowed to see. So I started to outgrow her, too.

At Walsh Jesuit, I started to meet like-minded people, people who were into film the way I was into film, and I eventually told Syd Field to take a hike and kept writing, although I’d often give up. There were even a couple of finished screenplays by the time I graduated — a Magnificent Seven/Blair Witch Project knockoff called The Villagers, and Teenage Wasteland, which was if JFK knocked up Heathers before running for the hills with his prep school buddies and Heathers drank like a fish during the pregnancy and had the baby during a heat wave.

Walsh led to New York University, which is where I got serious about movies once I realized I was surrounded by people who were really serious about movies, only to get disillusioned by my lack of seriousness about movies and decide I wanted to write television instead. (By this point, I’d figured out that the real power in film was with the director, not the writer, and I didn’t know whether I had the chops to be a good director.) Even after leaving New York for Ohio again, I maintained enough contacts there that allowed me to cast most of Redemption Falls, a tv pilot I wrote, out of NYU’s stellar talent pool. That project eventually became the feature I directed last summer, a feature I’m currently wrapping up post-production on.

Directing Redemption Falls reminds me of writing Power Play. I finished the first draft of Redemption Falls in the winter of 2005, ten years after the first and only draft of Power Play. I’m a much better writer than I was in the sixth grade, but directing a feature film reminded me of what it felt like to finish something and to finish something new. My mantra during the project was that it was going to be a learning experience, to see if it was something I had a talent for. Turns out, I did. At the very least, I didn’t suck. (So the question once again is, “how do I get good?”)

And it was all because of Casper.

Sure, there were other movies I’d been exposed to prior to that one, and it wasn’t until a couple years later, when I saw Boogie Nights and L.A. Confidential, that I started to think about filmmaking as something I wanted do for reasons other than meeting cute actresses. There have been more meaningful movies since and certainly more important ones, but I have a hard time imagining what I would have written had it been a different movie that awakened that interest. Because it was Casper, and Casper it will forever be, or something equally pretentious.

That’s pretty much it. Casper is not a great movie, nor is it even a good one. But it’s the movie that turned me into a screenwriter and helped give the last 13 years of my life a focus and a passion. And even though this story is embarrassing to relate, because it’s not Star Wars or Seven Samurai or Die Hard but a movie about a friendly ghost, it’s one that I have to give credit to, because I don’t know what I would have done instead.

Maybe law.


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